‘Donda’ is an arena-sized mixed bag


On Aug. 29, after countless pushbacks, disappointments, delays, live performances, breakdowns, and Drake beefs, self-proclaimed ‘best human artist alive’ Kanye West released his 13th studio album, Donda. Named after West’s mother, it’s hard to think of a recent album that has been as anxiously anticipated as Donda, which comes as no surprise, considering Kanye’s amazing discography, outstanding influence, and stardom among both music fans and mainstream media.

The features certainly led to a lot of excitement too, with big names confirmed to be a part of this record ahead of time including the likes of Travis Scott, Mike Dean, Pop Smoke, Jay-Z, Lil Durk, The Weeknd, and Kid Cudi. This album feels like a return to Kanye’s feature-heavy, denser albums, after making a departure into more personal, shorter records with albums like Ye and Kids See Ghosts.

Donda seems to follow part of this redemption arc Kanye has seen himself in recently. This follows a string of controversies ranging from backing former president Trump to a messy divorce with Kim Kardashian. Donda is fully clean, with no curse words or explicit references, and most of Kanye’s lyrical presence seems to be spiritually focused.

Donda is a massive, maximalist record, and stands at a staggering 27 songs (though 4 are bonuses), spread over an hour and 45 minutes. The full feature list would be a pain to type out, but nearly every song on this huge record has one or more features. This album is a spectacle; a massive, impressive, arena-sized record.
Though its sheer size is impressive, will Donda be able to capitalize on this grandiosity, or is the music too weak to carry its weight?

The opening track, fittingly named ‘Donda Chant’ is the strangest moment on the record, with total silence, other than a female voice randomly calling out the name Donda, with varying speeds and lengths. It’s brief, but an effective, melancholy, and slightly ominous opener.

The next cut, ‘Jail’, enters violently, with dry, percussive electric guitars roaring, and cutting straight through the mix. Kanye enters with soaring, distorted vocals, with a lyrical focus on his manic persona and his faith. Know how controversial the past few years have been, hearing Kanye scream “Guess who’s going to jail tonight” is an extremely cathartic moment. Raising, distorted background vocals, as well stellar guest verse from Jay Z, help this track rank among my favorite Kanye songs ever. This track is empowering, gorgeous, and lavish in a way that only Kanye can pull off.

As a contrast, “God Breathed’ is a lowkey, bass-filled banger with a tiringly preachy chorus. The beat is also extremely grating, especially towards the end, where the generic 808 rhythms are met with obnoxious, echoed, moaning vocal hits. Despite this, the feature from Vory is still gorgeous, and Kanye’s verse is one of his best on this record. The ideas in this song are alright, but a major problem with this song, as well as many in the tracklist, is the runtime.

‘Off the Grid’ is fun while it’s on, starting out with a trap beat, laced with drum fills, and a catchy hook, then transitioning pretty seamlessly into a drill beat. Though it was impressive hearing Kanye do his thing over both of these styles, and the features from Playboy Carti and Fivio Foreign are solid, there is no reason this song needed to be almost six minutes long. Kanye delivers a ferocity on this song that is impressive for someone in his 40’s, and Five Foreign has a really impressive, albeit redundant, verse.

‘Jesus Lord’ is a deeply emotional, yet deeply boring center point for the record. It starts out nice, with a beautiful organ intro, and a solid start from Kanye, but then everything gets really stale, really fast. This track also features Jay Electronica, who somehow seems to bore even more than Kanye does, with monotonous flows and a lowkey delivery. The sentiment is sweet, and the intro is beautiful, but this song is a grueling eight minutes.

‘Ok Ok’ is yet another banger with booming 808’s, this one with a sung/rapped first verse from Kanye that just comes off as awkward. This song really picks up with the appearance of Lil Yachty, who steals the track from Kanye, with a tight, well-written, and intensely performed feature. My main problem with this song, as well as many others here, is that a lot of times, Kanye is the worst part of his own songs.

‘Pure Souls’, which comes later on the tracklist, falls into the same trap. This song is fun, with its rich organ background, bouncy 808’s, and snappy percussion, as well as an amazing feature from Roddy Ricch. Despite this, Kanye sounds terrible on this song, singing terribly and letting his features totally outshine him. Kanye also feels the need to drag this song out to almost six minutes long.

While the hook is gorgeous, and Vory proves his vocal prowess, ‘Jonah’ is a relatively unremarkable song on the tracklist. Durk is amazing, with detailed storytelling and impressive lyricism, but it’s not enough to save this track from sounding like wallpaper. Moody production, a decent Kanye verse, and some solid feature work make this a notable track, even if it’s not one of my favorites.

If not for the decent Carti feature at the end, ‘Junya’’s the ugly organ, farting 808’s, and downright nauseous hook would be utterly unbearable. Kanye attempts and utterly fails a Soundcloud type instrumental, with a progression that gets stale the second time you hear it, and a total lack of much-needed drums. Kanye’s inflections are even worse, as he seemingly tried to write the laziest hook he could.

‘Tell the Vision’ is a strange experiment, and not one that I think was necessary, or all that good. It features a fuzzed-out, almost unintelligible Pop Smoke verse over some chunky, off-beat pianos. I understand the sentiment, but it felt wildly out of place.

The track ‘Remote Control’ might be one of the worst songs Kanye has ever put his name to. While the awkward drum fills and stunted whistle sections are bad enough, Kanye’s chorus is what really takes the cake as the worst part of this track. This hook is one of the ugliest, least catchy, and most sickening ideas I’ve heard from Kanye, point-blank. I feel bad for Young Thug for making his appearance on this track, as he didn’t do too bad, but there’s nothing he could have done to save this track aside from taking it away from Kanye.

It’s uniquely frustrating to see such great ideas be so horribly mismanaged, especially considering how well Kanye has done in the past.

The songs ‘Lord I Need You’ and ‘Believe What I Say’ are both tracks where Kanye is alone, the former being a very solid, straightforward rap verse from Kanye, dealing with his past loves and mistakes in that field, seemingly centering on Kim Kardashian. ‘Believe What I Say’ is a fun, danceable, bouncy track, that samples Lauren Hill. Though it doesn’t leave much of an impression, I feel like this track will grow on me with time. It doesn’t fit in with Donda at all, but it’s still a pretty good hip-house song.

‘Heaven and Hell’ is another solo Kanye cut, with a super intense performance by Kanye, a great crescendo with a satisfying payoff, and classic Kanye melodrama. It’s not the most special track on the record, but it’s definitely a solid one that seems to call back to a more boastful era of Kanye’s persona.

Yes, I have a fair share of complaints about Donda, but there are plenty of highlights on this behemoth of a record.
‘Hurricane’ is a definite favorite, with its swelling, psychedelic instrumental, glitchy inserts, raging synths, gentle percussion, and amazing features from Lil Baby and The Weeknd. Every performance here is top tier for their respective artist, Lil Baby is extremely effective over the rolling and soft drums, Kanye holds his own, and the Weeknd absolutely steals the show on the chorus, with breathtaking vocal presence and control. Easily one of the most beautiful moments on this record.

‘Praise God’, is another highlight for me. The song opens with a chilling vocal sample from Donda herself. Kanye’s flow on the chorus is fun, as are his inflections, especially his squeaked falsetto in the intro. The beat is solid, and classic Kanye, with an icy progression behind some 808 heavy production, eerie choir samples ringing in the back of the mix. Travis Scott has a solid, if brief, spot on the song, and Baby Keem delivers one of the most animated verses on the entire record. This song is undeniably catchy, with a satisfying beat that changes pretty frequently. ‘Praise God’ is easily one of the most successful bangers on the record.

The song ‘24’ is stellar, with its ascending, gospel organs, passionate vocal performance, and stuttering background vocals. Vory’s vocal contribution is gorgeous, and the entire track is assembled in this charmingly awkward, quirky fashion that adds a lot to the old-school gospel feel of the song. It’s amateur and clunky in presentation, but purposefully so.

‘Moon’ is a deeply intense, emotional point on Donda. Soaring, heavenly vocals from Don Toliver on the hook, tear-inducing hums and belting from Cudi, and very solid vocals from Kanye all add to the show-stopping beauty of this song. While this does feel more like a Cudi song than a Kanye one, it’s great to see them create such beautiful music together. To hear Kanye and Cudi singing with such clarity, knowing everything they’ve been through, is a super inspiring moment, and one that echoes some of the themes of forgiveness found throughout Donda.

The gorgeous, melancholy beat, sputtering, echoed drums and beautiful female vocals are just a few of the reasons that ‘Keep My Spirit Alive’ is a major high point on Donda. Griselda brings a lyrical and focused fire to this track that feels all too familiar for Kanye. Westside Gunns squeaky, boyish voice and wild adlibs, as well as Conway’s husky, deep voice is paradoxically both a perfect fit for this instrumental. Kanye delivers easily his best verse on the album, focusing on issues facing black communities, specifically poverty, and wraps up with a cute ode to his mother. This is easily one of my favorites on Donda.

‘New Again’ features a fuzzed-out intro, but quickly develops into a very well-written dance-pop, with an instrumental that Ke$ha or Nicki Minaj would have tackled in the late 2000s. The group chants of “make me new again” are extremely catchy, and the stuttering synths pair very well with the simple ‘one-two’ dance beat. Simple, but effective, and completely unexpected.

‘Come to Life’ feels like a straightforward soul song, with Kanye belting over a gently played piano. This song is winding, emotional, and elegant, and is the best example of the direction I thought this album was going to go in.
This is an extremely well-written and performed soul track, and the piano bridge is absolutely beautiful.

Donda’s final track is among its strongest, as ‘No Child Left Behind’ is yet another enchanting moment on this record. With breathtaking vocal performances from everyone involved, heavenly, suspended organ chords, and an utterly ethereal mood, this song is a perfect closer for the record, as well as a notable moment of beauty in Kanye’s discography.

The album closes with a “part 2” of the tracks ‘Jail’, ‘Ok ok’, ‘Junya’, and, Jesus Lord, all of which are identical bar an extra feature or two, none of which add that much to the overall record all too much.

Donda was a difficult listen for me to decipher. On one hand, the sheer size of it, the number of features, and the amount of quality spread out these 27 songs are genuinely impressive. Donda is a massive, diverse, kaleidoscopic, and hefty project, but that doesn’t make up for the simple fact that songs here are just underwhelming compared to Kanye’s previous work.

Kanye is consistently blown out of the water by his features, and the songs are frequently ruined by boring moments, terrible ideas, and a gross lack of attention to detail. This album feels unfinished, rushed, and underwritten, but still has some amazing ideas and some impressive qualities. Donda is a mixed bag, but its highlights are high enough for me to still come out enjoying this album.

OVERALL: 7.5/10

Best tracks; Jail, Hurricane, Moon, No Child Left Behind, Keep My Spirit Alive


Worst tracks; Remote Control, Junya